MBL Scientist Osamu Shimomura, 2008 Nobel Laureate, Dies at 90

Contact: Diana Kenney
508-685-3525; dkenney@mbl.edu

Osamu Shimomura holds a test tube containing green fluorescent protein (GFP) in a water solution. He also holds a lamp that shines ultraviolet light, which causes the GFP to fluoresce bright green. Shimomura purified this small amount of GFP from 20,000 Aequorea specimens. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

Osamu Shimomura holds a test tube containing green fluorescent protein (GFP) in a water solution. He also holds a lamp that shines ultraviolet light, which causes the GFP to fluoresce bright green. Shimomura purified this small amount of GFP from 20,000 Aequorea specimens. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

WOODS HOLE, Mass.—With great sadness, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) notes the passing of Osamu Shimomura, Ph.D., who died on Oct. 19, 2018, in Nagasaki, Japan. Shimomura was a Distinguished Scientist Emeritus at MBL, a former member of the MBL Society, and a 2008 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. The MBL flag will be lowered in his memory.

A senior scientist at the MBL from 1982 until his retirement in 2001, Shimomura dedicated his career to the study of bioluminescence in many animals, particularly the chemical structure of photoproteins. In 1961-1962 he discovered and isolated green fluorescent protein (GFP) from the jellyfish Aequorea, a molecule that later became a revolutionary tool in light microscopy that allowed scientists to see cellular components and processes that could never be seen before. For his work with GFP, including elucidation of its chromophore in the late 1970s, Shimomura was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 with co-recipients Martin Chalfie of Columbia University and Roger Tsien of University of California, San Diego.

“The development of GFP to visualize the inner workings of cells, organs, and entire organisms precipitated a golden age of innovation in microscopy and imaging that continues to unfold,” said Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory. “The importance of Dr. Shimomura’s contribution to contemporary biological discovery cannot be overstated.”

Osamu Shimomura was born in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto-Fu, Japan, on August 27, 1928. Wartime cut short his high-school education and by tenth grade he and his classmates had been mobilized to work in munitions factories. In 1945, Shimomura was 15 kilomoters from Nagasaki when the atomic bomb fell, a devastating event that left a lifelong impression.

After the war, Shimomura enrolled in Nagasaki College of Pharmacy, graduating in 1951. He then worked as a research student at Nagoya University from 1955 to 1958, under the guidance of Yoshimasa Hirata. During this time, Shimomura succeeded in crystallizing luciferin, the light-emitting substance, from the marine organism Cypridina, which was an extremely difficult isolation to accomplish. Based on this work, Shimomura was awarded a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Nagoya University in 1960.

In 1959, Frank H. Johnson of Princeton University invited Shimomura to work in his laboratory. Shimomura arrived in 1960 and was joined shortly thereafter by his wife and research assistant, Akemi (Okubo) Shimomura. While at Princeton (1960-1982),  Shimomura discovered and isolated GFP, after he and Akemi had hand-collected and hand-processed 10,000 Aequorea jellyfish specimens at Friday Harbor, Puget Sound, Washington. Shimomura also isolated another bioluminescent molecule from Aequorea, aequorin, which was widely used among cell biologists and physiologists in the 1970s and 1980s as a calcium probe.

Four images of the jellyfish Aequorea taken by Osamu Shimomura in 1961 at Friday Harbor, Washington. At top, Shimomura photographed these specimens directly in the harbor during sunlight. At bottom, after transporting jellyfish to a darkroom, he exposed them to fresh water to trigger bioluminescence. This panel was exhibited as part of The Living Lights display at the 2014 Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Four images of the jellyfish Aequorea taken by Osamu Shimomura in 1961 at Friday Harbor, Washington. At top and bottom left, Shimomura photographed these specimens directly in the harbor during sunlight. At bottom right, after transporting a jellyfish to a darkroom, he exposed it to fresh water to trigger bioluminescence. This panel was exhibited as part of The Living Lights display at the 2014 Edinburgh International Science Festival.

“Osamu Shimomura was the first ever to purify one important protein and substance after another that are responsible for bioluminescence (using a vast number of organisms that he personally collected). He selflessly supplied the purified material to scholars around the world. He and his wife, Akemi, kept to the bench for so many years without seeking glory or public recognition,” recalled MBL Distinguished Scientist Shinya Inoué, a longtime colleague and friend of the Shimomuras.

During Shimomura’s tenure at the MBL, he was an integral part of the MBL’s research activities, presenting scientific reports in the MBL General Scientific Meetings, authoring articles in The Biological Bulletin, the scientific journal long published at MBL, and serving as an expert advisor on the green fluorescent protein. Akemi Shimomura was also a member of the MBL’s research staff from 1982 to 2001, working as his research assistant. In 2002, the MBL presented a symposium in honor of Shimomura’s achievements, and in 2013, Shimomura presented a talk about his life in science at the MBL in observance of the laboratory’s 125th anniversary.

Among his many scientific honors, Shimomura was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2013. In 2008 he received the Order of Culture, the highest honor given annually by the Emperor of Japan, at a ceremony at the MBL.  He was the author of numerous scientific publications and two books: Bioluminescence: Chemical Principles and Methods (World Scientific Publishing, 2006, revised 2012) and Luminous Pursuit: Jellyfish, GFP, and the Unforeseen Path to the Nobel Prize (World Scientific, 2017).

Osamu Shimomura is survived by his wife, Akemi, of Falmouth, Massachusetts, his son, Tsutomu, his daughter, Sachi, and two grandchildren.

Links:

Osamu Shimomura’s CV

Osamu Shimomura’s Autobiography, prepared for the Nobel Foundation

Osamu Shimomura’s Nobel Prize Lecture

MBL Press Release on Shimomura’s Receipt of Nobel Prize (with photo gallery and other resources)

MBL Catalyst article on Osamu Shimomura

New York Times obituary

Washington Post obituary

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The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.